Have We Already Seen James Harden’s Ceiling?

When James Harden was traded from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Houston Rockets, there was a sense that Harden would break out and improve upon his career averages. Nobody expected the massive barrage of points that Harden would score, but that leads us to a question. Have we already seen Harden’s ceiling?

Harden wowed everyone with his remarkable start to his Rockets’ career. He scored 82 points in two games, including awesome shooting percentages of 63.6 from the field, 42.9 from the three-point line and 87 from the free-throw line.

He would add in 6.5 rebounds, seven assists and two steals, which made the Rockets look like geniuses and Harden look like a superstar.

Then, reality set in. He’s out there alone at times.

When the first two games of the 2012-13 season are eliminated, Harden looks a lot more like a struggling volume shooter than anything else. In the last nine games, Harden is scoring 20.4 points with 3.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

More alarming are his shooting percentages, which plummeted to 36.7 from the field, 24.5 from the three-point line and 81.6 from the free-throw line. Sounds like Kevin Martin numbers.

Is it too early to say that Harden isn’t suited to carry a team and that he was much better off as a second or third option? Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but it’s difficult to ignore the facts.

Granted, Harden doesn’t have a lot of help in Houston. Jeremy Lin has shown he’s a serviceable facilitator but isn’t very good at creating his own offense. Aside from Harden and Lin, the Rockets don’t have other options.

Then again, if they did have more options, would Harden be taking 17.6 shots per game and playing 37.9 minutes each night? Probably not.

That brings us back to the original question of whether Harden has already shown his ceiling. The answer is yes.

Similar to a change-up running back in the NFL or a sidearm relief pitcher in MLB, Harden is extremely good in certain spots. He’s great when he can play against a second unit. He’s terrific in the fourth quarter when the defense has to respect other scoring options.

What’s happening in Houston is akin to that running back or relief pitcher being thrust into the starting role. Harden doesn’t have enough tools to consistently produce and carry his team.

He continues to face double teams and clogged lanes because his teammates aren’t producing. In the first few games of the season, the defense didn’t know what to expect, so Harden was able to go off against basic defensive sets.

Now that the secret is out, defenses are shading Harden and are making life extremely difficult for him. After shooting 11, 11 and 12 free throws in three consecutive games, Harden has gone to the line just eight times in his last two appearances (one was shortened due to illness).

Harden is also wearing down late in games due to the workload he’s been given. In the last three minutes of any quarter, he’s shooting just 27.9 percent. In the entire fourth quarter, he’s shooting 36.6 percent. His field goals have been assisted just 20 percent of the time in the fourth quarter and 36.1 percent overall.

This is important because it’s a stark contrast to his days in Oklahoma City. For example, in the 2011-12 season, he shot 51.8 percent in the fourth quarter, with 37.5 percent of those coming assisted. Overall, he had 49.5 percent of his field goals assisted.

That was the result of playing with other players that the defense had to respect. They couldn’t shade off Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant and Harden feasted off of that.

The picture being painted is clear. Harden is a terrific second or third option, but he cannot carry a team on his back. The first two games of the 2012-13 campaign were a glimpse at Harden’s ceiling, which has since come crashing down. Without help, he’ll never be able to reach it again.

Piece originally written by HoopsHabit for Bleacher Report

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